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The Meanders Of J.J. Hickson

US Presswire

US Presswire

In the indelicate art of player evaluation there often exists an enormous chasm between potential and production, talent and efficiency. We pious (and often pompous) basketball analysts self-righteously implore players to use their talents in efficient ways, to abandon their tawdry love-affairs with long-jumpers, transition run-outs and gambling defense. We beg and plead with them to use their athletic talents for virtuous, noble and worthy purposes like cleaning the glass, finishing at the rim, and applying sustained defensive effort. For the past few years, J.J. Hickson has been one of these targets. A young player with immense physical gifts; Hickson’s inconsistent rebounding, incongruous shot selection, and inane defensive rotations have caused no end of hand-wringing in the basketball blogosphere.

When contrasted with how many words were devoted to extolling his shortcomings, it’s been surprising how little attention his positive performance has received this season. Hickson is having what can only be described as a career-year. However, I would argue vehemently against any characterization of it as a break-out or break-through season. Instead of continuing to explore the outer limits of his potential, Hickson has retreated to the heart of it. He has largely forsaken pursuit of the basketball plays that lay just out of reach and focused instead on those that are firmly within his grasp. With that focus has come a remarkable level of efficiency and a much more productive use of his talents.

The biggest change Hickson has made this season is making his presence felt on the interior. This has resulted in some significant statistical changes to both his rebounding and scoring. With size, strength, length and agility Hickson has always had the raw materials to be an incredibly effective rebounder. But over the past few seasons, as he worked to develop a perimeter game on offense and hunted for more transition opportunities, he spent less and less time near the rim. This season he has parked himself at the rim and has been gobbling up rebounds. Through 21 games he has posted an ORB% of 15.2%, the 9th highest in the league. His DRB% is 28.6%, 4th highest in the league. All together Hickson has been collecting 21.5% of the available rebounds when he’s on the floor, a number that trails only Reggie Evans and Anderson Varejao.

In terms of scoring, we don’t have to look at just raw numbers to see his new interior bent. The image below represents his shot distribution from last season, both from his time with the Kings and with the Trail Blazers.

Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 3.25.58 PM

You can see that most of his damage was done at the rim, but there was still plenty of activity on the perimeter. In fact, 19.4% of Hickson’s shot attempts last year came from beyond 15ft. The image below shows his shot distribution this season.

Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 3.21.01 PM

The percentage of his shot attempts which have come at the rim has jumped from 62.2% to 73.6% and the percentage of his shots which have come from beyond 15ft. has dropped to 9.1%. It seem clear that the ‘J.J. Hickson combo-forward’ experiment has been brought to a close. Staying close enough to drop the ball through the basket has helped him push his FG% to a career high 56.6%

In watching this new phase of Hickson’s career, I’ve found myself grappling with some big-picture questions about player development. The questions are not just related to him, but to the similarities in his production this season with that of Kenneth Faried:

Screen shot 2012-12-17 at 9.42.19 PM

In his eight months playing professional basketball games, Kenneth Faried has made an impact by focusing all of his considerable energies on the one or two things that he does well – pound the glass and finish inside. He is a quarter of the way through his second season, and the Nuggets seem more than content with what he is providing. At least in game situations, there doesn’t seem to be any push for him to develop a perimeter game, build his ball-handling, or become a Ryan Anderson pick-and-pop power forward. The Nuggets are letting him do what he does best, and are reaping the benefits.

When I look at Hickson this year, I see a player who is accomplishing roughly the same things as Faried. However, it has taken Hickson four years of meandering to find himself at this place, where as Faried arrived in the NBA, fully-formed. The thing that I find so interesting is that, excepting a little polish and a little confidence, there isn’t much Hickson is providing this year that he wasn’t capable of providing as a rookie. If he had been placed in a situation with similar expectations and responsibilities to Faried, is there any reason to believe he couldn’t have been just as successful right off the bat?

Instead, Hickson began his career with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Cleveland desperately needed a star to pair with LeBron and so the focus of Hickson’s player development was on his potential instead of his present. Stars score and create their own shots, and thus he was lavished with isolation possessions and opportunities to work with the ball on the wing instead of in the paint. Hickson spent three seasons in Cleveland. In each of the last two, the number of mid-range jumpshots he attempted rose, topping out at 5.9 per 40 minutes in 2011. The percentage of those shots which were unassisted also dropped precipitously over that time span. In 2011, his only season in Cleveland without LeBron, he attempted 331 shots from 10-23ft., making just 32%, with just 64.1% of those makes having been assisted on. This season he is averaging just 2.6 shots per 40 minutes from that range, making 57.1%.

I find it ironic that Hickson has largely been viewed as a failure or incomplete player, when this only makes sense in the context of expectations. The problem is that those expectations were based on what his teams hoped he could do, not an appreciation of what he actually could do. Is J.J. Hickson really a failure just because he’s J.J. Hickson and not Chris Webber? Please keep in mind, that although he’s not Chris Webber, J.J. Hickson is a pretty good basketball player.

I understand the temptation for any team to test the limits of a young player’s potential. But in Hickson’s case it seems like he found success by breaking out of the path to stardom that was originally laid out for him, instead finding a more modest and manageable path. I wonder how many other players there are like Hickson who were pushed away from their strongest skills in the name of development and never get the chance to refocus and succeed with what they do well. How many players have been labelled as busts, because they ran up against expectations for growth instead of being given the opportunity to help their teams win with the contributions they were capable of? Again, I see the value in avoiding a stagnation of skills, but it seems like an incredibly inefficient use of resources to spend four seasons of practice time and game experience getting a player to a level of production he could have reached at the beginning if he was just told to be himself.

  • Jared B in Portland

    You’d have a hard time overstating Hickson’s value for the Blazers this season. With Lillard’s obvious impact, Aldridge’s sure scoring ability, Batum’s athleticism and Matthews’s toughness and reliability, it would be easy enough to overlook all that blue-collar bullying going on underneath the basket. Without Hickson’s offensive boards, so many of Portland’s rallies this season would have fallen short. The guy works incredibly hard, cannot be intimidated, makes timely plays, and is a joy to watch. If the Blazers don’t give him a fair offer when the season’s over, it’ll come back to haunt them, guaranteed.

    • Ian Levy

      The one thing that worries me is their lineup numbers. The Blazers’ starters are -2.3 points per 100 possessions. If you swap Hickson out for Leonard, they are +6.5 points per 100 possessions. There’s a lot of noise there but there still seem to be some defensive kinks with Hickson and Aldridge together that need to get worked out.

      • Peter

        That’s because Hickson is pretty terrible at defense. He tries often, but he’s also a very undersized center and one who get’s lost on rotations sometimes. That Leonard is better than him statistically is really an indictment of Hickson defensively as Leonard is far from a savvy defender at this point.

        • Ian Levy

          So do you think Aldridge and Hickson are a sustainable front-court combination? Aldridge and Leonard seem like they might be better together long-term. But if you put Hickson on the bench then he’s trying to carry a second-unit offense, playing more minutes without Lillard, and they may just end up with the Cleveland version again.

          • Van Jeigh

            There is a maturity in Hickson this year that wasn’t present when he was plucked off of waivers the Blazers toward the end of last season. Perhaps this is attributable to the revised playing as you’ve mentioned or perhaps it was being cut in a contract year that changed his game. And maybe the one year deal he signed with Portland after what can reasonably called lukewarm interest by the league that has him playing at an even higher level…all I know is that I love the guy and I’m glad he’s here in Portland because he brings his lunch pail in a manner quite possibly not seen in these parts since a guy named Brian Grant (who, if you recall, like Hickson was both acquired after playing with the Kings (albeit via free agency) and asked to play out of position due to a log jam at forward.

            Thanks for the story, nicely written about a genuinely good guy.

          • Ian Levy

            Thanks Van, I really appreciate that!

  • greenknight32

    No need to over-analyze this – Portland badly needed inside and rebounding help, Hickson has a strong inside game and was available. They picked him up, asked him to play down low, and he’s thriving there because it’s the strongest part of his game.

    The most notable thing about J.J. is that he’s such a hard worker, gives it his all night after night. May have worked against him, in a way, when he was being asked to do too many things. Yes, it is better to have young players play to their strengths – I don’t know why some coaches can’t figure that out.

    • Ian Levy

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I know I’m making a big deal out of a very small change, as you put it “they picked him up, asked him to play down low” But I feel like it is borderline revolutionary for a team to ask a player to just do the basics. Of course teams like the Spurs do this all the time, but that’s just about opportunity. They give Matt Bonner the chance to just be efficient and shoot threes. But Bonner doesn’t have much potential to do things beyond that, so the Spurs aren’t asking him to abandon anything. The Blazers asked Hickson to do the simple things in lieu of striving to his ceiling, and in doing so made him better. It’s such a bizarre loop.

      • greenknight32

        Unusual, perhaps, but it was more luck than anything. Portland had an abundance of shooters but was short of rebounding and inside scoring. Hickson was the best they were able to come up with to fill that need. I think they were as surprised as anyone at how well he did in that role.

  • teradasan

    Gotta love Hickson. I actually think he’s playing better defense than he gets credit for. He knows how to disrupt big slow guys. Also has good hands around the rim on offense.

    • Ian Levy

      I think he has all the tools to be a good defender and can make some good plays when they’re viewed in isolation, but his team defense – rotations, pick-and-rolls, etc.; leaves a lot to be desired.

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